April 22, 2014

Marketing Research Chart: Are email lists growing or shrinking?

SUMMARY: Numbers are a default way to measure success. A key number for email marketers is list size.

While it is an imperfect measurement at best – it certainly doesn't account for quality – who wouldn't prefer and work toward a growing list?

In this edition of the MarketingSherpa Research Chart of the Week, we'll take a look at email list growth trends.
by Daniel Burstein, Director of Editorial Content

When Groupon was going public and launched its IPO, you could hardly pick up a financial publication and not read about its "global email subscriber list of 50 million." There was no mention of engagement or list quality or deliverability.

While equally, if not more important, than size, these things are harder to measure and express.

Lists are, without a doubt, valuable. While there is much more to the value of a list than sheer size, it is a single, clear number that business leaders can ask digital marketers about: "Is our list growing or shrinking?"

In the MarketingSherpa Email Marketing Benchmark Report survey, we asked:

Q. Which statement best describes your organization's email list growth trend for the past 12 months?

View Chart Online

Click here to see a printable version of this chart

Fast-growing lists

For 17% of organizations, lists are growing rapidly. Software or software-as-a-service organizations saw the most rapid list growth, with 25% of these organizations reporting a rapidly growing list. Again, that does not necessarily mean overall business goals are being achieved because size does not necessarily account for quality, as this marketer replied in the survey:

"We have noticed a tendency to increase the subscription list like crazy, especially with the help of social tools. For example, when using social locks. These actions actually increase the base, but there is a lot of garbage contacts and such a base is difficult to segment."

Slow- and steady-growing lists

Half of marketers reported lists are growing at a slow and steady pace, with 59% of nonprofit and education marketers reporting this growth rate.

The business community, and society overall, tends to reward (and perhaps even fetishize) anything that is growing at an unnatural rate. But slow growth may ultimately produce better results if that slow growth is happening for the right reason. One example is this marketer's response in the survey:

"Privacy is a big topic and we are auditing our practices ... which may lead to a more stringent opt-in process [equaling] decreased volume of contacts to email but, hopefully, higher-quality lists."

Declining lists

A small minority of marketers experienced declining lists, with only 6% saying their lists were slowly shrinking and just 1% had a quickly falling list.

Lists may decline because a company is unable to demonstrate the value proposition of its list, and therefore, is unable to build its opt-in list, while, at the same time, sending irrelevant emails to its current list. This may cause them to unsubscribe (or, even worse, mark your email as spam).

When recipients leave on their own, it may provide you with a more relevant list, as this marketer indicated:

"If people opt-out, the list dwindles (which is OK if they are not potential clients.)"

Some email marketers even engage in proactive list hygiene efforts to force subscribers off their lists to create higher-quality lists:

"We have been working to cull our list to drive higher CTR, but haven't been able to do so. Our open rates continue to climb, but I fear this will affect our email reputation."

Hunters prefer search, gatherers prefer email

Of course, email is just one channel in a multichannel world.

Your unique prospects may be hunters, preferring to find information only when they need it using search engines or social media.

Or, they may be gatherers who prefer to receive email newsletters and promotions, and save (or sort) them in specific folders for when they want to go shopping or follow up for further information.

They also may even be a combination of the two.

Regardless, the ultimate question isn't just: "Is my email list growing or shrinking?"

Rather, you should be constantly asking and answering:
  • Why would an audience want to receive information from my company (whether content or promotional)?

  • How do they want to receive it?

Answering those two questions can help you optimize your lead generation and e-commerce efforts in any channel.

Related Resources

How Cutting a House List 95% Helped Double Sales: 5 steps

Marketing Research Chart: Most effective email list building tactics

Email List Hygiene: Remove four kinds of bad addresses to improve deliverability

Email Research: Top 3 tactics to grow your list

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